Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Writing Popular Fiction (1974)

     A lot has changed since the mid-1970s, especially if one is writing about that period while still cognizant of the lingering impact of the late-1960s.  It would be wrong to think that the market for fiction is anywhere near the same.  While the shift is likely less jarring than the pre- to post-Hemingway era of American literature, genre fiction – the subject of Dean R. Koontz's Writing Popular Fiction (1974) – one must consider how different the world is the more recent now.
     Koontz was writing about a world where Peter Benchley's Jaws was just released as a book and had not become the first modern blockbuster.  George Lucas had made two films at that point, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973); there was no such thing as Star Wars (1977).  Star Trek (1966-69) was a show that had a decent run on network television and had not yet emerged as a presence in syndication.  The use of vampires in successful fiction wouldn't emerge until Stephen King penned 'Salem's Lot in 1975, and it would not be until Anne Rice brought the sexy vampire back with Interview with a Vampire (1976) that the undead got to be in something more than a sub-category of the horror genre.  Cable television had been around for 25 years but was still something more common in remote rural areas than the sameness of suburbia.  Satellite television existed; it had its first single purpose satellite launched in '74.  The personal computer was effectively unknown.  The VCR existed, but was extremely expensive.  It wouldn't be until 1975 that Betamax came on the scene and allowed for the average person to record broadcast television or watch movies at home at one's leisure.  Hell, print magazines were still a major and viable outlet for a writer to submit fiction.
     Koontz lists seven categories of genre fiction: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Suspense, Mysteries, Gothic-Romance, Westerns, and Erotica.  I would argue that Sci-Fi (wildly expanded over what it was by the mid-1970s, for better or worse), Fantasy, Suspense (still very strong), Mystery (Koontz writes about the more traditional, Agatha Christie style mystery, which has been superseded by a more active plot structure since the early 1990s at least), Gothic-Romance (this is a chaste kind of romance, part Brontë sisters' young girl sent off to live in a strange house and long for the unobtainable man, part supernatural mystery; my understanding is that this market died before the 1970s were over), Westerns (another genre that has widely gone by the wayside; it takes a very well-written book to garner any attention beyond people who go purposely looking for a Western; however, the more modern Western follows a much different plot structure where a man can be a man instead of a slave to the modern world), and Erotica (Koontz divides this category into the Big Sexy Novel and the Rough Sexy Novel; the former category includes everything from the bodice-ripper romance novels of the 1980s and 1990s to the sex-filled stories of Jacquelin Suzanne or Harold Robbins, and even more, while Rough Sexy is effectively porn).  To his credit, I think that Koontz did a fantastic job of delineating the categories and his understanding of them.  I could not think of a kind of genre fiction that would not fit in these groups (though as noted, I believe the Gothic Romance is dead).  More to the point, Koontz, who was not yet 30 when he wrote Writing Popular Fiction, clearly understood all of the genres and the necessary elements to make one acceptable to a publisher.
     Koontz is a little too eager to go to numbered lists (this is more of a personal complaint, because if one is keeping the book handy as a resource then this tactic is fine, but it gets cumbersome if one is just reading through the book as a book).  Then, when doing so would make the most sense, he avoids the tactic and just lists the information with paragraph breaks.  It feels a little odd, but once I understood that he was going to change it up whenever he felt like it, I became much less concerned about it.
     One of the better parts of any book on writing is how many forgotten (or at least unknown to me if they have remained popular) books the author mentions as good examples of the genres.  For the most part, Koontz rattles off well-known and renowned titles and authors, though in some instances he seems to be well ahead of his time.  He praises Lucas' THX 1138 as being one of the two worthwhile (meaning not derivative) science fiction movies, which is impressive mostly because nobody saw THX 1138 when it was released.  Still, it became quite clear that not only was Koontz very well read, he also had no problem throwing other writers under the bus when it came to their abilities and works.  This stood in odd contrast to his straight-out advice that a writer is better served by writing sub-standard, by the numbers genre fiction to earn a paycheck than in taking a 9 to 5 job and neglecting writing for even a few short months.
     Koontz also gives great insight into why the authors of the era were so eager to use pen names.  This always confused me, but apparently there was a prevailing belief that an author could compete with himself (or herself) instead of a loyal following buying more books by the same author.  Likewise, there were genres (this may still be the case) where the audience was thought to only endorse on gender of author – Westerns needed to be written by men, Gothic Romances only by women – and an author often took a name for each genre in which he or she worked.  It still seems crazy to me, but Koontz does an excellent job of explaining that when the publisher tells you to use a different name if you want the advance check, do it.
     According to Koontz, a good story needs:
❶ A Strong Plot
❷ A Hero or Heroine
❸ Clear, Believable Motivation
❹ A Great Deal of Action
❺ A Colorful Background
     That all seems super-obvious, doesn't it?  Yet there are several stories I'd love to develop that I have have yet to figure out how to move the plot to the forefront of the tale.  I have been known to try to force weak or unlikeable characters into the main role.  I cannot remember I time I did not try to hide the characters motivations.  I love restricting action (for no reason).  And I am weak at describing the alien (Science Fiction or Fantasy) settings, or in bringing out the particulars of an environment and making the story come alive because of them.  It is all simple advice, but sometimes I need to be clobbered over the head with it.
     My overall reaction to this book is positive.  I think I would enjoy a conversation with Koontz more than his books (and non-fiction to his fiction), but he clearly has mastered the craft of getting the readable, serviceable story in print quickly.  Dated, sure, but worthwhile.

Here are some of the fun bits I marked:

Koontz wondering about the future for a science fiction novel: Will marijuana be legal? p. 18

History lesson on American politics: In a short novel, appropriately enough titled If This Goes On..., Robert Heinlein writes of a future in which the church's tax-exempt status and the gullibility of the masses propel a backwoods evangelist into national politics and, eventually, a religious dictatorship that covers North America.  Heinlein's argument that the church should not be given an inch of influence in government, lst it take a mile, is given plausibility by the manner in which churches, in recent years, have pyramided their moral influence over government into a multi-million-dollar-a-year pro-church lobby in Washington. p. 21

Just kind of funny: For example, if you were primarily concerned with writing about the total failure of law and order in the city streets after dark by the year 1990... p. 22  (I had forgotten how focused on urban decay 1970s Sci-Fi was.)

Avoid cliched plots: Do not, for example, propose "secret organizations" who are out to overthrown some government and destroy the world.  Only governments themselves have the power to destroy the world.  And organizations out to overthrow governments are usually not secret, though their machinations may be. ...Never propose a villain who, single-handedly, sets out to destroy the world, no matter how wealthy or resourceful he may be. p. 78  (People still violate this all the time, and it is sad that it has endured.)

On p. 83, Koontz misunderstands the duties of the Secret Service while criticizing authors who misunderstand the duties of the Secret Service (he states they only protect the President and candidates).

The unlikable narrator: There is no hard and fast rule for this, in any genre; every story demands its own voice.  However, a good rule of thumb is to use third person for a story whose hero is hard-bitten and extremely competent.  A first person narrative by such a hero, in which he must regularly comment on his own prowess and cunning, may seem ludicrous to the reader.  He may dislike the hero and, therefore, the entire novel.  (This is how I felt about Patient Zero.)

Best title for a book some should be ashamed to be seen reading: Thirteen and Ready! p. 148

Koontz on Women Readers: Many women who read the Big Sexy Novel are terrified of divorce and, rather than seeing it as an answer to the problem, might find it a frightening and depressing non-conclusion.  This might change, too, in coming years, as more and more women realize their value, as people, outside of the institution of marriage. p. 144

Keep it simple: The vocabulary of the BigSN should always be simple.  The fewer multi-syllabic words you use, the better.  This does not mean that the BigSN reader has a more limited vocabulary than other genre readers; however, most BigSN want a book that can be read at the beach, over several evenings, between household chores–in short, a book that is interesting but not so demanding that it must be read carefully and in as few sittings as possible. p. 146

Respect the rules: Writers break rules and still get published all the time.  But these are writers who have published, for the most part, numerous other books: people who have learned all the rules, have proved they can use them successfully time and again, and have therefore earned the right to break a tradition or two. p. 151

Don't write in a particular dated style: Finally, avoid using the observer frame for your story, in which the first person narrator prefaces and ends the story with statements that this was the way he saw it all happen.  This technique, made popular by Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories, renders the plot all past even, one long flashback, and it robs the story of its immediacy. p. 166

Style: ...[I]f you are trying to write beautiful prose full of catchy similes and metaphors and other figures of speech, you have reached a point where you should stop and reconsider what you are doing.  Whether or not you recognize it, you have your own voice already, one the reader will identify as yours, and you have only to let it grown of its own accord. p. 166

Style: There is one rule of style that every writer can benefit from: say it a simply, as clearly , and as shortly as possible. p. 167

Style: Economy of language is the most important stylistic goal. p. 170


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